Text: Dylan Brethour
I’m standing beside a stranger in a cube, surrounded by glowing pumpkins. Welcome to the Yayoi Kusama exhibition at Victoria Miro. Kusama’s work is instantly recognizable, her trademark preoccupation with polka dots, repetition and infinite space all here on display. Born in Japan, she moved to New York City in the 1950s and took part of the wave of counterculture shaking up the art world. Today, Kusama is credited with influencing everything from Pop Art to Minimalism. While it quickly becomes obvious why (all of those psychedelic pumpkins) there’s a playful, disconcerting touch all her own. After her return to Japan in the late 1970s, she checked herself into a psychiatric hospital and famously never left. It’s hard not to see a connection between Kusama’s voluntary committal and the themes that run through her work. For all of Kusama’s reputation for bold design, it’s her thoughtful and often surreal evaluation of perception that’s most appealing.
This can’t have been a straightforward exhibition to organise for Victoria Miro. The problem, from a curatorial perspective, is that most of the sculptures are self-contained structures with space for only two or three people. This entails a great deal of unavoidable waiting. Where the Lights in My Heart Go is an outdoor installation and we duly shuffle to the space behind the gallery. It turns out to be a good day for the traditional British pastime of queuing in bad weather. The sculpture is a cube with aluminium siding that creates the effect of distorted mirrors. Three of us at a time are ushered through a small door inside and the women with me start snapping photos with their phones. The interior is dark with irregularly shaped holes to let in the sunlight. The eerie lighting effect is ruined by the camera flash. It occurs to me that this sculpture is also about the experience of being stuck in a box with other people. I may not like what happens, but it’s out of my hands.
Lack of control turns out to be a common theme. Narcissus Garden is a collection of stainless steel spheres floating in a pond. The spheres wobble together across the water, reminiscent of children’s toys and natural phenomenon like seafoam. The fat little sculptures are verging on comical but also strangely poignant. They roll around without much purpose, at the mercy of the wind. In contrast to these sculptures, Kusama’s series of paintings, Infinity Nets, are more sedate. Each involves highly textured loops of colour. The effect is foggy, imprecise structures made up of repeating patterns. For me, without the immersive element of the sculptures the repetitive effect is alienating. It’s possible that is the point. Only the final painting, a pumpkin is covered in black polka dots, is a departure. Kusama’s family were seedling merchants and remnants of that early, intense interaction with plant life is evident. There’s an aggressive weirdness to the design that feels more vital than the rest of Infinity Nets.
My favourite piece is the sculpture Grief Chandelier. At first sight it’s underwhelming, just an ugly chandelier in a mirrored room. It’s only once I look away from the centre that it becomes something compellingly uncanny. The chandelier is reflected in the mirrors, forming a shifting series of images. The room feels enormous as the chandelier and its flashing light are expanded by their reflexions. The title makes perfect sense: like grief, what’s physically present here is less interesting than what isn’t. All the Eternal Love I Have for Pumpkins is another sculpture that uses mirrors. Psychedelic pumpkin sculptures have been placed at foot-level, and the mirrors project them upward. The room inside is tiny, with only enough room for two of us. It’s a ridiculous situation, two strangers standing on each other’s toes surrounded by illuminated vegetables. However playful, there’s a surreal fairy tale edge that’s profoundly unsettling. In different hands Kusama’s theatricality could be a gimmick. Instead, the exhibit is a reminder of just how unstable the world and all its parts can be. Even pumpkins.
Yayoi Kusama: sculptures, paintings, and mirror rooms is on at Victoria Miro, Wharf Street until 30 July, 2016.